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3 Top Districts Take 3 Approaches To Charter Schools

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File photo of classroom. (credit: ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of classroom. (credit: ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images)

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SEATTLE (AP) — Washington voters have decided they want to add charter schools to the education mix in the state, and the three largest districts are taking different approaches to the question: What should charter schools mean to our community?

Seattle has decided to basically ignore the question for now, Tacoma is still learning and exploring and Spokane has jumped in with both feet.

Spokane Superintendent Shelley Redinger said districts that do not embrace the possibility of charter schools may have the issue forced on them.

“We don’t want divisiveness,” said Redinger, who experienced a similar transition in Oregon at a previous job. She moved back to Washington in 2012 and says the approach districts take now matters.

Although school districts are not required to make any immediate decisions, the new law gives them options.

The charter law approved by voters in November allows up to 40 charter schools to open in Washington state over the next five years. Proponents say they can help minority and low-income students improve their learning, close the achievement gap and head to college. Opponents worry they will take money away from regular public schools.

The new charter schools in Washington may be authorized by the statewide Charter School Commission or by districts that get the OK from the state Board of Education.

Spokane (about 29,000 students) is one of about a dozen districts that have expressed interest in becoming authorizers. They face a Monday deadline to file an application. The other districts that filed an official intent to apply by Monday include: Battle Ground, Bellevue, Eastmont, Highline, Kent, Naselle, Peninsula, Port Townsend, Sequim, Spokane, Sunnyside, Tacoma and Yakima.

Whether a district becomes an authorizer or not, charter schools may open in their service area as early as fall 2014 and become the public school for children who used to attend district schools, taking dollars away from those districts.

Redinger said charter schools can bring choice and innovation. Spokane has Montessori programs in two of its elementary schools. It has a home-school hybrid program and it offers an option for parents who want to take a more involved role in their children’s schooling.

“When I first started in Spokane, we did a parent and community survey. It came out loud and clear — before charters passed — that they wanted more options,” she said.

Redinger said her school board likes the idea of a blended district, where traditional and charter schools cooperate, learn from each other and share resources. A similar blended approach has been adopted in Portland, Ore., Denver and Los Angeles.

At Redinger’s previous job in the Oregon Trail School District, she said parents saw charter school partnerships as innovative and forward-thinking. Most of the local colleges and universities have also said they’d explore possibly partnering with the district to start charter schools.

In Tacoma (about 29,000 students), school officials and school board members also are curious how charter schools could help them meet academic goals, but they are taking a more cautious approach.

At the end of May, the Tacoma School Board voted to delay its application to become a charter school authorizer. They may reconsider in the fall.

Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said the board evolved quickly from a resolution opposing charters before the November election to a discussion of how charter partnerships could be part of a plan going forward.

Santorno had a lot of experience with charter schools in Denver, but she doesn’t consider herself a charter proponent. She does believe, however, that Tacoma may have something to gain by partnering with charters.

The district offers a variety of academic choices, from the School of the Arts in downtown Tacoma to a science and math institute at the Point Defiance Zoo. Of the more than 30 schools designated as innovative schools in Washington, 12 are in Tacoma, Santorno said.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not open to other ideas and opportunities,” she added.

The Tacoma School Board’s original objection to charters focused on the loss of control, but Santorno agreed with Redinger that not becoming an authorizer may mean giving up whatever local control the district could maintain.

Meanwhile in Seattle (about 49,000 students), School Board President Kay Smith Blum said the state’s largest district has a variety of school models that have added choice to the system. Also, she said a new neighborhood school assignment plan has increased stability and enrollment and new buildings and technology are coming on line.

Blum said she was worried that adding charter schools could disrupt progress she said is being made — and added that parents have expressed strong opposition as well.

“What most voters were curious about: What does that get us?” Blum said of charters. “What is a charter school going to offer in terms of pedagogy or instructional value that isn’t available in our city?”

The district is currently trying to lengthen the school day and also incorporate the new national academic standards. When all those goals are achieved — six months or a year from now — Seattle may start to look at other ways to add choice to the system, including charter schools, Blum said.

But there are still many questions. “It’s going to be an interesting conversation, both at the state and the local level,” she said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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